About Face

People with snub noses are vain, untruthful, unstable, unfaithful and seducers." So wrote Barthélemy Coclès in his 1533 treatise Physiognomonia. The now discredited pseudoscience of physiognomy was at its peak during the 18th and 19th centuries, when proponents believed that a host of personality traits -- criminal tendencies, in particular -- could be scientifically discerned from a person's facial appearance. While you won't find many contemporary advocates of physiognomy, you'll find that people still seek information in the faces of others. This is especially true when viewing a portrait, on which the face and the way that artist has rendered it are the only clues to the person depicted.

Almost everyone has drawn a portrait at some time in their lives -- preschool amoeboid circles with dots and lines depicting immediate family, rude high school caricatures of the faculty, head studies from a life drawing class. Ever since man began to create symbolic representations of himself, instead of bison, images of people have been, with some exceptions, a constant in the human artistic repertory. The motivations to create portraits are varied: to record the likeness of a loved one, to create positive PR through powerful political images, to depict the gods we worship or to explore the face as artistic subject matter, an instrument to convey emotional information. Patrick Palmer works in this ancient tradition, and a selection of his portraits is on view in "Critical Gaze" at ArtScan Gallery.

At their best, Palmer's paintings have a kind of cool objectivity, with rounded, slightly stylized features that emphasize the sculptural solidity of the face and skull. The head is the focus, frequently filling the canvas and nearly bumping the upper edge with a claustrophobic presence. Portrait of Kurt (1999) is a standout, a sensitively modeled profile with a spare, monochromatic background. The Artist's Brother (2000), a diptych, is approached with a similar thoughtfulness. The features are nearly expressionless as they stare back at the viewer, presented with the kind of deadpan scrutiny found in everything from Chinese ancestor scrolls to Roman mummy paintings to Jan van Eyck's cool Netherlandic gaze. They're images that lack the emotional cues of a Rembrandt or a Kokoschka, that cause the viewer to return the subject's gaze, struggling to divine information about the sitters or the artist's attitude toward them.

Portraits make us wonder, Who is this person? What are they like? What kind of life do they lead? How did they feel as they were being painted? What were they thinking? What made the artist choose them?

The face is Palmer's primary concern, a conclusion reinforced by sloping shoulders attached to each sitter's neck like an afterthought. The Shepherds (2000) presents two standing nude figures with staffs. The bodies have awkwardly foreshortened arms ending in clublike hands that are inconsistent with the rendering of the rest of the body. The figure doesn't seem to hold Palmer's interest much, at least not enough to be a successful subject for him. Backgrounds are problematic in the images in which he unenthusiastically tries to fill in the space with scrawled lines or hurried geometric forms. The most successful work happens when Palmer keeps the surrounding space as neutral as possible, instead of forcing himself to devise an unconvincing pattern. Palmer is at his best when his subject's head occupies as much of the picture plane as possible.

Four paintings grouped on the back wall -- Ruben, IV (2000), Hokusai Man (2000), Bienville Man (2000) and Emil Rizk, V (2001) -- work well together, but the exhibition as a whole is relatively uneven. The most recent work is more gestural but, with a couple of exceptions, feels unresolved and hurried instead of purposely loose. Birthday Boy (2001) is a pleasant exception -- a head with a red smear and a birthday horn is heavily cropped by a dark frame in a wonderfully awkward manner.

Portraits have fallen out of favor in the contemporary art world, usurped by photography and often relegated to genre painting, but images of ourselves and others can still fascinate. Palmer has an affinity for the portrait, for observing and interpreting the human face, but he seems to be undergoing stylistic growing pains, moving from tighter and more controlled images to more expressive and gestural strokes. He is striving to regain the specificity of his marks, but in a looser fashion. It's a tough thing for an artist to negotiate, but it's a struggle he has a good chance of winning.

By the way, there is a discernible lack of snub noses in the exhibition.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer